For Migrant Workers, Still the Harvest and the Shame

Two UFW-sponsored bills to beef up enforcement passed the California Legislature last summer but were vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Protective legislation, the subject of Murrow's appeal at the end of the documentary, didn't solve the problem.

Rodriguez: In his eulogy for 19 farm workers who died in a farm labor bus crash near Blythe, California, in January 1974, Cesar Chavez said such tragedies happen because "of a farm labor system that treats workers like agricultural implements and not as important human beings." 13 tomato workers died in August 1999 when the farm labor van in which they were riding crashed near Fresno, California. Seats were not bolted to the floor. Unsecured farm implements impaled some workers during the crash. The UFW pushed for a new California law requiring seat belts and other minimum safety standards in farm labor vehicles enforced by the CHP. Most states have no such protections.

Rodriguez: Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and others convinced Congress to end the infamous bracero guest worker program in 1964. The farm labor work force has been dramatically transformed since the 1960s. Then, perhaps 65 percent of farm workers were Latino, but mostly U.S. citizens and legal residents. Today, the work force is uniformly Latino, immigrant, and undocumented, making farm workers even more vulnerable to abuse. Without undocumented workers, American agriculture would collapse. The UFW and the nation's growers, who agree about very little, jointly negotiated the historic AgJobs bill. It would let undocumented farm workers currently in this country who pass criminal background checks earn legal status by continuing to work on farms. President Obama strongly supports this bipartisan, broadly backed immigration reform measure.

Rodriguez: Today they are called "farm labor contractors," but the practice is similar. Some labor contractors, who now control at least half of California's farm labor work force, try to obey the law. Too many undercut each other to get business from growers. Too often growers don't put enough money on the table for contractors to obey laws such as those governing minimum wages and hours, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. Contractors, who are legally considered employers, act as middlemen. Many growers use them to evade their legal and moral duties as employers.

Rodriguez: Where farm workers are protected by UFW contracts in California and some parts of Washington State and eastern Oregon, they enjoy decent pay, family health care, retirement plans, paid holidays and vacations, seniority and protections from pesticides. Many unionized farm workers have broken into the lower middle class. Some own homes. Their children finish high school and many go on to college.

Rodriguez: The non-profit Cesar Chavez Foundation, like the UFW part of the farm worker movement, has built or renovated and manages 30 market-rate quality affordable housing communities with more than 4,400 units for farm workers and other low- and very-low income working families and seniors in four states, most with extensive social services. Creation of more communities is underway.

Rodriguez: Just two years after Harvest of Shame, on his birthday, March 31, 1962, Cesar Chavez quit his job as a community organizer and began building what would become the UFW. But Cesar was convinced it would take more than a union to overcome the burdens workers faced; it would take a movement addressing crippling dilemmas workers faced in the community as well as the workplace. So he and many others who joined him began organizing by providing services such as a death benefit, credit union and a co-op gas station.

Three years later Filipino-American farm workers belonging to the AFL-CIO union cited in Murrow's documentary struck Delano-area grape growers and asked Cesar's mostly Latino union to join them. The five-year Delano grape strike and three-year international grape boycott forged the first successful farm workers union in American history.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UFW. Since Cesar Chavez's passing in 1993, farm workers in recent years have won new protections through UFW contracts with the largest strawberry grower and winery in America, one of the biggest vegetable growers in California, 75 percent of the state's fresh mushroom industry, one of the largest dairies in the nation, in eastern Oregon, and the biggest winery in Washington state. Since last spring, 2,000 California tomato workers at three, soon to be four, Central Valley companies will have won new UFW contracts that will begin changing their lives.

I asked the folks at the grocery giant Kroger to participate in this exercise. They said no. I asked both senators from the states of Florida and Georgia, too. No dice. Even the officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture declined the opportunity to say something meaningful about Harvest of Shame and its impact on today's farm workers. Are you surprised by this? I'm not. These poor people have more earnest advocates today than when Murrow visited them. But both the harvests and the shame he chronicled are still very much with us today.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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